CNN's Anthony Bourdain Documentary Faces Backlash for 'Deepfake' Voiceover

CNN's Anthony Bourdain Documentary Faces Backlash for 'Deepfake' Voiceover

A new documentary from CNN Films about Anthony Bourdain is causing a ruckus after it was revealed the filmmaker used artificial intelligence technology to mimic the voice of the late celebrity chef, leading some to voice ethical concerns over the use of deepfakes.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, which opened Friday in cinemas, uses AI to simulate the voice of Anthony Bourdain reading passages from an e-mail correspondence. Director Morgan Neville acknowledged the digital sleight of hand after The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner asked him how he found an audio recording of Bourdain reading from his own e-mail.

Neville told the magazine: “If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know. We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

His seemingly unapologetic reply has elicited a backlash among journalists and other documentarians who are questioning the ethics of deepfake technology.

Bourdain's estate allegedly greenlit a handful of AI line-readings for a new documentary about him, and this is yet another ethically uncomfortable step in the growing field of holographic and CGI performances from those who no longer have a say in their own legacy or portrayal.

— Minovsky (@MinovskyArticle) July 15, 2021

I used to write small scripts for Tony for @roadsandkingdoms, and yo, he was VERY FUCKING SPECIFIC about what he would say on the mic and how he would say it. It was always a little dangerous trying to put words in that man’s mouth. So yeah: #BourdainAI is a freakishly bad idea.

— Nathan Thornburgh (@thornburgh) July 16, 2021

When I wrote my review I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an A.I. to deepfake Bourdain’s voice for portions of the narration. I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.

— Sean Burns (@SeanMBurns) July 15, 2021

In a statement to Deadline, Neville claimed he received permission to recreate Bourdain’s voice.

“There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”

Ottavia Bourdain, the late chef’s ex-wife who reportedly serves as executor of his estate, has denied granting permission to the production to simulate the voice of Anthony Bourdain.

I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.

— Ottavia (@OttaviaBourdain) July 16, 2021

Deepfake videos have become commonplace online and on social media thanks to free deepfake software tools. But they have raised concern from politicians and celebrities who fear malicious videos could be created to damage careers. Some even fear deepfakes will be used by hostile countries to mislead American citizens and destabilize the U.S.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was produced by CNN Films, which is a division of CNN. The documentary is set to stream on HBO Max later this year and will also air on CNN at an unspecified date.

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David Ng